The arrival of a star-studded World XI this week in Lahore to play three T20 games marks the welcome return of international cricket to Pakistan after an agonising span of eight-and-a-half years. That period, commencing March 2009 in the aftermath of a harrowing terror attack on the touring Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore, seemed like an eternity, especially for those who avidly follow the game.
It was a telling absence as well for those who may not be crazy fans of the game but believe in their heart of hearts that cricket is a key catalyst in breeding social cohesion in a nation that has forever grappled with multiple ethnic, cultural and ideological diversity issues.
Few would deny that cricket, for the past many decades, has given a positive expression to the warring instincts of Pakistanis who would love to vent their emotions during a match before assembling again for yet another contest.
The handsome Champions Trophy win in England this June was testament to how this beleaguered nation could still shun its differences and celebrate a hard-earned, well-deserved honour coming the country’s way.
Pakistan cricket comes full circle in Lahore as eight long years of international isolation are set to end in the same city where tragedy struck. For many players and spectators, this will be their first experience of playing at home
To quote the former England pacer and celebrated cricket writer Mike Selvey, “While cricket may not be the elixir of life, it might quell any rumbles there are. And even if it doesn’t, it is one hell of a pleasant way to settle a dispute.”
Good things to come
The series against the World XI, dubbed as the Independence Cup, will be followed by a one-off T20 contest against Sri Lanka later this month and another three T20s against the West Indies who will be touring in November.
These are unmistakable signs of international activity resuming in the country, the likes of which have not been witnessed here since 2009. The credit for this ought to be given to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) whose relentless efforts eventually managed to convince the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the member cricket boards to assent to the tours.
However, more than the PCB or the ICC, the Pakistani fans perhaps owe a debt of gratitude to the South Africans — five of their current superstars, including skipper Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla, Morne Morkel, David Miller and Imran Tahir, will form the nucleus of the World XI which comprises players from seven countries.
Having themselves been forced to live as the pariahs of international cricket for 22 long years — from 1969 to 1991 — due to the loathsome Apartheid system, the South Africans could best relate with Pakistan cricket’s increasing isolation in the world of cricket leading them to readily agree to be at the forefront of the landmark tour.
Barring ex-skipper Shoaib Malik, who made his ODI debut as far back as 1999 and has played a number of international games at home, the solitary international outing here for skipper Sarfraz Ahmed and a few others remains the short series against Zimbabwe in 2015, also played at Lahore.
The hype and euphoria surrounding the upcoming matches is just about reaching its zenith now. However, the challenges for Pakistan in hosting international teams once again are manifold.
Security, of course, is paramount among them. Needless to say, it is imperative for the government, the PCB and the national security agencies to ensure the World XI tour remains incident-free which will eventually decide Pakistan’s fate as host for the future international tours by foreign teams.
The players’ lack of exposure against top teams at home is another challenge that Pakistan will confront in the days to come. The Champions Trophy success has obviously raised the hopes of the natives and the players ought to be feeling the pressure of living it up to an expectant, charged up crowd every time they take the field.
The truth is that for a majority of the 16 Pakistan players named to face the World XI, home turf is an alien territory. Barring ex-skipper Shoaib Malik, who made his ODI debut as far back as 1999 and has played a number of international games at home, the solitary international outing here for skipper Sarfraz Ahmed and a few others remains the short series against Zimbabwe in 2015, also played at Lahore. Therefore, it will be an ‘international home debut’ of sorts for 11 other players, a factor that could well be playing on their minds.
A large contingent of foreign media and the broadcasting crews would also be accompanying the World XI, which is likely to include former players from all over. Critically assessing each aspect of the tour, they promise to be a fastidious bunch no doubt, a fact which will surely not make things any easier for the PCB.
Lahore Lahore hai!
Meanwhile, the tours — by the World XI and the subsequent ones from Sri Lanka and the West Indies — being Lahore-centric have raised a few eyebrows.
Critics, including former players, are quick to point out how cities such as Karachi, Multan and Faisalabad which have been much less vulnerable to terrorism as compared to Lahore in recent times — have been snubbed by the cricket board.
PCB Chairman Najam Sethi, who claims to have played a key role in the resumption of international cricket in the country, vociferously argues the case of staging matches in Lahore. He insists that all stakeholders involved, including the PCB, the government, security agencies, the ICC and the parent cricket boards of the players comprising the World XI, are singularly focussed on smooth and incident-free staging of the matches. Towards that end, he contends, these tours must not involve any inter-city travel or accommodation risks vis-a-vis the foreign players and the international media.
He, however, is keen to add that the other venues will soon start getting matches, citing a fair share of games for Karachi in the third edition of the Pakistan Super League, set to be played in Feb-March 2018.
It looks like a rosy picture for Pakistan cricket so far and one sincerely hopes it to stay this way in the weeks to come. Putting it succinctly, it is vital for everyone concerned to translate individual brilliance into collective success and help make the tours a thumping success.
Though it may be wishful thinking or a nascent dream, but with cricket mania overriding almost all issues and people’s emotions in this country, the resumption of international cricket could well prove to be instrumental in curbing the terrorism menace and a vibrant force for the Pakistanis to make a new beginning.
The writer is Sports Editor, Dawn
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 10th, 2017